Elton John – Greatest Hits (2002)

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by Nick DeRiso

The truth is, she never really left me.

We would ride around, listening to eight-track tapes – or else pull a stereo speaker outside and swing on the back porch – then sing. We listened to Elton John, me and Mom.

“They say Spain is pretty,” I can hear her echoing, in a high voice, one summer day, “though I’ve never been.”

For too long, I felt the pain of scars that wouldn’t heal. And, to be honest, very old Elton sometimes helps, even still.

It will remind me of this birthday party we had when I was about 10. Each was inevitably a costume party, since I was born only days before Halloween. Mom was in charge of disguise, and Dad took care of the creepy special effects. We watched movies – but these were actual films, from the library: “Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy,” “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.” They also tangled with the Werewolf.

My mother and I talked and talked. We decided that ice cream cake was best. We decided Kenny couldn’t come, because of The Watch Incident:

Me to Dad: I don’t know where my watch is. Dad to me: You lost the watch.

Me to Dad: No, no way I lost my watch. Dad to me: You lost the watch.

Days later, the doorbell rings. It’s Kenny, with his father.

“My son,” Kenny’s dad says, “has something to say.”

Kenny to me: Here’s your watch. (Me and mom laughing, to Dad’s stony silence.)

Mom to me, later: I never liked that kid. (Me and mom laughing, to Dad’s stony silence.)

Mom to Dad: Jimmy, I told you Nicky didn’t lose his watch. (Me and mom laughing, to Dad’s stony silence.)

So, Mom dressed me as a girl for that birthday party. This is one of the pictures. It’s all there: Dress. Hat. Heels. Makeup.

I must admit, though I’m not happy to, that I made a pretty terrific looking young lady. In fact, the night of the party, one my best friends – Vinnie, that’s him as the far-more-sensible football-playing skeleton – met me in the courtyard of the house and asked me if my big brother was home.

Mission accomplished for mom, a lady who squeezes her eyes shut and laughs with a ferocity that forces participation. We giggled for days. Dad, meanwhile, would have nothing to do with this. He was busy grossing out my buddies. He made a fun house of the box that our new dryer had arrived in. When you reached in the secret, magical hatch, Dad had live exhibits – including brains (a steaming bowl of spaghetti) and, best of all, eyeballs (really, unpitted olives). My friends were absolutely thrilled.

I loved my parents for that night. I remember even then thinking that this was something worth remembering, for always.

They were that kind of couple – funny and spontaneous, silly and open – kids who met when she was 17 and he was 23. Everyone wanted to spend the night with me. But my mother was a woman who tended to lead when they danced. She knew what she wanted from the start. So it might not have been a surprise that she left us. I always saw them as people who loved each other like they were in a sequence from a movie, or else part of a guitar solo.

That kind of thing never stays.

Time passed. While mom wasn’t the fiercely adventurous girl she once was, I still saw flashes – the pretty eyes, the pirate smile – and recognize these things even now in myself: Parents are like prisms in a kaleidoscope soul. Bits and pieces they may be, but each constitutes a part of the sharp-edged thing that you now are.

The year I was to turn 13 – after what could only be called a lengthy time for such a torrid and deeply felt affair – my parents took a vacation to Mexico, a last-ditch effort to repair something that detail and fate and billowing outside forces had worn threadbare. The home movies bear out how miserably that trip turned out. I always wanted to reach in and push them together, to fix something.

Then, she was gone, a puff of exhaust leaving our cul-de-sac in the middle of the night. My brother Dustin stood at a window in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, watching as she and a new man drive off – while I slept one door down. Soon enough, I awoke – and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” would hit me like a gutshot.

Getting to know her again, then, was like discovering another part of my heart. It was a good bit later, after a lot of years. But it happened. We were too old, really, to resume where we left off, but we made our peace. What I found out: You notice things, as you map the way back into a lost relationship.

When something was obvious, she would say, “Yup.” So do I.

Searching myself, I see that kind of simple reflection more often now than I could’ve imagined in the 1970s, when circumstance separated us.

Was it possible, even after all that time away – after so long counting headlights on the highway, wondering if one of them was my mother – that she had never really left me?


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